Britannia Panopticon
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Britannia Panopticon Music Hall – Life in Old Ghost

By Judith Bowers

Britannia Panopticon began life in the late 1850s when Glasgow was bursting at the seams with humanity. Thousands of workers had flocked to the city to work in the mills, factories, foundries, shipyards and collieries. They lived in the worst conditions imaginable; single ends* housed one third of the population, lodging houses where they crammed eight to a bed were available for those who couldn’t afford a single end and if you couldn’t afford a sliver of bed space then the penny line** was a slightly better option than the poorhouses and workhouses. Brittania Panopticon

The social and working conditions of the workers of this industrial empire were not so much intangible as unimaginable to us today; men, women and children toiled in the most atrocious and dangerous conditions, the stench of the sewers, the thick smoke that belched from the factories and mills and made the air thick and foul to breathe, the lack of indoor and outdoor plumbing etc. would be insufferable to our modern and delicate dispositions – only the strongest survived.

The audience of the Britannia Music Hall (as it was originally known) comprised 1500 of these people, who would cram into the small auditorium four times a day, squeezing up cheek to cheek (so to speak) on the rough wooden benches that served as seating for those who could afford it. Those who couldn’t got to stand at the sides and back of the hall. Where-ever they sat and whoever they were, they all came for the same reason, to be entertained, blow off steam, have a laugh (usually at the expense of the act on stage if they weren’t up to muster) and escape from their difficult lives. But this was an audience that had for generations cut its teeth on the barbarous practice of public punishments and executions, which in Glasgow had been the only form of legitimate entertainment from the 1550s to the 1750s. Consequently the Glasgow audience evolved over the generations into a merciless mob who literally left no turn un-stoned. In Britannia Music Hall the turns (acts) could find themselves pelted with Shipyard rivets, nails, rancid turnips and horse manure, whilst urine might rain down on them from the balcony. However, if the turn appealed to the Britannia’s audience, they would be rewarded with thunderous applause and foot-stamping instead.

* A single end was accommodation in which the sleeping, living and cooking areas were contained in the one single room.

** A Penny Line was a washing line – sometimes also referred to as the penny lean - which would hold the sleeper up by the oxters until the line was untied the following morning.